Sometimes You're The Shovel…

When it comes to starting in a crowded fleet, the ability to properly fill a hole can be the difference between a front-row start and clear air and getting flushed out the back.

I didn't want to learn anything from last night. It was one of those evenings where I simply wanted to throw my hands up in the air and say: "Nut and Bolts! We! Got! Screwed! It just wasn't our night." It was light and shifty, the race committee set an absurdly short first beat, and the leeward mark was a ridiculous 10-boat pinwheel that generated more than a few gel coat repairs and hails of "Protest." And we didn't do well.

For 12 hours, I stuck to my guns. Then on the ride to work this morning, I my stance softened like fresh asphalt in the summer sun (they’re doing a lot of paving in Newport this summer). I remembered a few things that we would apply going forward. The biggest one involved the pre-start.

Starting has always been a focus point for our team in J/24 Fleet 50. It’s never been a strong suit and it’s vital for success in Fleet 50, which is notoriously aggressive and often sailing on fairly narrow racetracks due to the tide.

This year we’ve been trying to hone our communication between the bowman and the helmsman (which includes trying to get the tactician, yours truly, to shut up). Last night we worked the port approach for all three starts (one was recalled). In each case we were able to find a relatively large hole into which to tack. However, how we “filled” that hole is something we need to improve. Learning from our mistakes last night, there seems to be two parts to properly filling a hole on the starting line. The first is to get as close to the windward boat as possible, giving you as the maximum runway to leeward, provided you can do that without letting anyone else behind you swoop into the hole you’ve just swooped into. The best way to do that is usually to do a slow tack from port to starboard, holding head to wind until the starboard tack boat, either by his actions or his position, forces you to finally flop all the way onto starboard and claim your leeward boat rights.

The second part of filling a hole is ensuring that you’re close enough to the line. This is more of a factor in light air, and on a line that’s biased toward the pin. This is where the communication between the bowman and the helmsman is critical. Once the hole is identified, the bowman needs to relay back the distance from the line so that the helmsman knows where he needs a quick tack (the line is very close), a long tack (the line is somewhat close), or even whether the boat needs to sail hard upwind on port before tacking.

In our case, the third option was the one we needed. The wind was very light, the line was slight pin-favored, and we needed to be almost on the line (though not over, since the black flag was flying) to ensure we could bear off to accelerate and still be on time for the start. Our tack was too quick. With 25 seconds to go, the bowman said, “You’re racing, you’ll never get there.” And he was right, at the gun we were slower than we’d like to be and a boatlength or two shy of the line. Had we been on the line, we could’ve tacked to port almost immediately, crossed most of the fleet, and been on our way to the favored side. You know, the side where people didn’t get screwed.